I always know when I’ve reached Kachchh—the landscape dramatically changes. Where there once was scrub brush and sandy dunes in nebulous patterns, now there are perfect squares of blue-white crystals, glinting in the sun. Where once all you could see were a few balding hills in the distance, now there are hundreds of tri-blade windmills from the roadside to the horizon. It had been two months since my last visit to Kachchh, when I had sat in the sun-drenched meeting room, had surveyed the carnage rendered when the earth opened its maw. In those two months, I had been doing preliminary research for my project: reading dry legalese, highlighting references and citations, scribbling ideas in the margins of already crowded notebooks. But now, I was going back again—back to the former kingdom that had become the crucible for my whole fellowship experience. And this time, it was up to me to prove my worth to my two mentors seated in the back seat. To prove that I had the ability to fill a two-hour workshop with legal learning that would leave my listeners better off than when they arrived. To prove that I was a competent instructor.
As the kilometers blended together into a linear nothingness, I couldn’t stop ruminating on the importance of this place to my ten-month experience in India. Without Kachchh, I wouldn’t have a project. Most of my ideas and all my piloting did or would occur within its borders. Without Kachchh, I wouldn’t even have a fellowship. The first version of the AIF Clinton Fellowship began in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake. The broken foundations and fallen buildings of Adhoi mark the genesis of this program that has created such a unique opportunity for me to try, in my own small way, to engage with education policy in India. Without Kachchh, I would be just another person hunched over a desk with no field experience and some vague ideas about what needs to happen in rural education. Without Kachchh, I wouldn’t be nervously wiping my slick palms on my jeans as I thought about putting my eight-week-old ideas on display in front of field workers with combined decades of experience. I couldn’t help but think, “Who am I to tell these people what to do?” As the blades of the windmills whirled in my window, the dance of the crickets and butterflies began in my stomach, and all I could hope was that my hours of planning and preparation would prove more earnest than quixotic.
My alarm sounded at 4:30 the next morning, initiating my plan to cram as much information before my debut as possible. Eyes still bleary, I arranged my laptop and materials around me on the bed to begin workshop-prep. My mentor and I had decided to test my Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 module: one of the few I felt reasonably certain I could successfully lead on that visit. I began pouring over the act’s text for the umpteenth time, performing the worst task a researcher faces: searching for something you previously missed. I was told that our day would start at 8 o’clock with a visit to a before-school Learning Enrichment Program (LEP). Then we would head to the field office to start my training at around 11, break for lunch, then conclude my training when I saw fit. Ergo, I had about three hours before my day started to sufficiently bolster my confidence in my ability to sit in front of a group—my mentors and the local field workers—and speak authoritatively on something about which I felt I had only the vaguest of notions.
The whole time I was at the LEP, I smiled the vacant smile of a person who can’t enjoy his present for fear of his future. I just wanted to get through this day in one piece: to fall back into that hard bed at the hotel and heave a sigh of relief at a job, at the least, done. Every minute in the LEP classroom and on the ride to the field office, my mounting anxiety strengthened an imposter syndrome, recently blossomed, which had nearly convinced me that I was more likely the lost heir of the Romanovs than someone who should be instructing people on child labour laws in India. As the car stopped inside the small enclosure of the field office, I hopped out and asked my mentors for a few minutes inside alone.
I entered the small field office and staked my place on the cushion nearest the exit, just in case I needed to quickly flee the revelation of my incompetence. As I opened my laptop and queued the relevant documents for my presentation, a cold bead of sweat traveled down my spine. My clammy hands could barely move the cursor across my screen as I did a last review of the pertinent parts of the act. That being done, and with nothing left to occupy my nervous energy, I placed my fidgeting hands in my lap and began ideating on how quickly I could ask for a chai break.
I was in silence for only a few seconds before a familiar face came walking through the door. The tall man flashed a white smile and bade me good morning. I had met this man in Bhachau two months ago—he was one of the people who surrounded me with so much friendship after that first morning of training. I had seen him several times since that day at random events and workshops, and each time we had shared some great conversations and funny anecdotes. As he settled on a cushion, I eagerly greeted him and struck up a conversation, happy to have such an amiable distraction.
He asked me what we would be doing during the workshop, and I responded that we would be covering child labour. He seemed genuinely interested in the topic, and said it was something on which he and his fellow field workers would like some guidance. I told him that it was really I who needed the guidance: that I had no idea about how this really impacted the lives of the communities in which we worked. I joked that I needed them, not them me. My tall friend again smiled and said that he believed we were going to get to learn from each other. They would get a basic understanding of the provisions of the act, and I would get a view into the on-the-ground realities of child labour in rural communities. We would learn, together. This seemed like an obvious thing to him: that the workshop was supposed to be collaborative. But to me, it was revelatory.
His words flew into my ears, slid into my stomach, and stilled the flails of the insects within. We were both going to learn, and there was nothing wrong with that. I wasn’t in that room to drone on for a few hours to prove my mental and legal prowess. I was there to discuss, with experts, the realities of the opaque legislative terms from 1986. I could never attain my friend’s level of expertise in field realities during this fellowship. Nowhere even close. But I could provide some interesting legal ideas around which he and the other workers could place their experiences so that all our understandings were edified by the end of the day. I would provide the black-and-white outlines and they would supply the colors that represent the existence of child labour in rural communities. We, together, would create something that was informative and useful.
My relief manifested as a laugh, as I thanked my friend for coming that morning. Without even knowing it, he had pulled me back from the ledge of my own self-doubt. I realized how self-aggrandizing it was of me to think that I was the most important aspect of the workshop—that without my peak performance the whole day would be a waste. Sure, I had to actually be prepared and knowledgeable on the subject. But it was the sharing of experiences, the back-and-forth between me and the workers, that would make this a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. This was a great comfort to me on that warm day in December.
My palms slowly dried as the rest of the attendees arrayed themselves on the cushions in the small room. I smiled at my tall friend, turned to my mentors for the nod to start, and took a deep breath. I was as ready as I would ever be to start my first workshop.
“Good morning! Thank you all for coming. So, today we are going to be discussing child labour…”